Why Doesn't Plagiarism Matter?

August 26, 2008

As David Horowitz would be quick to remind you, academics tend to skew to the left in their political outlook relative to the general population. I am no exception. Like so many of my colleagues, I have followed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with interest and excitement. South Carolina had an early primary this year, and nearly all of the major candidates came to speak at Clemson University, where I teach. Obama spoke outdoors, on a chilly and gray afternoon, but the energy he shared with that crowd of teachers, staff, and students made the event the most compelling political spectacle I’ve witnessed personally. The sight of an integrated crowd cheering a black presidential candidate not far from a campus building named in honor of Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist, made politics seem exciting again.

Remembering this sense of exhilaration I sensed in seeing a new field of political possibilities makes the sense of betrayal I feel today even more powerful. By choosing Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has insulted academics -- students and teachers alike -- a constituency that was significant in bringing him the nomination of his party. Especially in a year that has seen two prominent political careers hamstrung by sex scandals, and in an era where choosing vice presidential candidates seems to be foremost an exercise in avoiding skeletons in the closet, it’s surprising that Biden’s record of plagiarism did not disqualify him from Obama’s consideration.

Joe Biden, you will remember, ran for president in 1988. He delivered a speech that presented the thoughts of British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock is if they were his own, and was slow to explain or apologize for this transgression. The ensuing scrutiny of Biden’s record revealed that he had also plagiarized in law school, failing a course for doing so. Shortly after these revelations, he dropped out of the race.

The entire affair was a shabby and unfortunate business. Operatives from the competing Dukakis campaign secretly videotaped the offending speech, then leaked it to the press. When Dukakis found out, he fired his campaign manager, John Sasso, and replaced him with Susan Estrich, who turned out to be a much better legal scholar than campaign manager.

To a degree, appropriating Kinnock for a stump speech is an understandable offense. There is not the presumption of original and unique authorship in the words that come out of a politician’s mouth. Just ask Peggy Noonan. However, the phrasing of Biden’s speech, prefaced Kinnock’s sentiments with language that indicated that these were his thoughts. This incident suggests the same kind of troubling indifference to the truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration, but on its own, perhaps not worthy of ending a political career.

The incident in law school is more concerning, at least from the perspective of any educator. The kind of wholesale plagiarism Biden evidently committed, copying chunks of a law review article into a paper with his name on it, suggests an inclination toward the kind of malfeasance present in the Kinnock incident. In every class I teach, I spend time talking about citation, and why it is so important for scholarship. As part of this conversation, I emphasize that acknowledging sources is a condition of membership in the community of scholars: if scholars do not acknowledge sources, they do not belong in this community. By way of illustration, I have sometimes shared the Emory University report on the conduct of former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who undermined a provocative and compelling argument about gun ownership in early America with gross violations of scholarly norms for citation. The report demonstrated serious concerns about his scholarshop and led to his resignation. If Bellesiles had chosen a less contentious subject, he would not have had legions of NRA supporters going through his footnotes, and he might well still hold his tenured position at a prestigious university. However, he presented his research in sloppy and dishonest fashion, and he lost his job.

The point of sharing this report is to establish that citation is not a question of memorizing MLA, APA, or Chicago styles -- whimsical shibboleths involving italics and parentheses -- but that citation is the foundation of honest scholarship. In the sciences, an experiment’s repeatability is the benchmark of its truth; in the social sciences and the humanities, citations perform the same function by allowing a reader to recreate the steps through which a writer established his or her argument. If a professor violates these norms, as Bellesiles did, he can lose his job; if students violate the same norms, they can face expulsion (though it’s much harder to get kicked out of most universities for academic dishonesty than it perhaps should be).

Within the academy, plagiarism is a grievous offense, and one most scholars would agree ought to have consequences. I was sympathetic to Bellesiles’ argument, and actually sent him an e-mail message of support, before the extent of his malfeasance was evident. But I teach the Bellesiles case because it establishes that there are consequences that follow from academic dishonesty. Bellesiles cheated, and he lost his job because of it, and in spite of an argument that continues to make sense.

Joe Biden is not a historian. Joe Biden has several qualities that do make him a good pick for Obama’s VP. On Election Day, I will hold my nose and vote for Obama/Biden. I continue to believe Obama offers the United Sates the best chance of escaping from the disaster of the last eight years. A survey of third party candidates reveals that after the vainglorious spoilsport Ralph Nader, the choices get even more marginal at a quick pace. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will face enormous challenges over the next four years, and I don’t think I can afford to waste my vote on a gesture. But I wish Obama could have located someone with foreign policy experience who did not have Biden’s track record of intellectual dishonesty, because I’d hoped to be motivated to do more this fall than show up and pull a lever for Obama. After this VP choice, however, I feel that’s the most Obama can expect from a constituency he has indicated he takes for granted.

Biden’s dishonesty matters to me in two ways. It suggests something of Biden’s character, indeed, in a realm more relevant to doing his job than was John Edwards’s philandering to his. The other reason is selfish. Now that Barack Obama has deemed a plagiarist worthy of the vice-presidency, it becomes more difficult for me to make the case in the classroom that plagiarism matters. More broadly speaking, Obama’s choice has made it harder for me, and for my colleagues across the United States, to defend the principles that form the foundation of scholarship.

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Bio

Jonathan Beecher Field is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University.

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